James Ramsay MacDonald

The British politician James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), three time prime minister of Great Britain, was one of the great architects of the British Labour party. In 1924 he formed the first Labour government.

Ramsay MacDonald, born in October 1866 in the little peasant and fishing village of Lossiemouth in Morayshire, Scotland, was the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay, a farm servant, and John MacDonald, a plowman and a Highlander from the Black Isle of Ross. He was reared by his mother and his grandmother, Isabella Ramsay, a woman of strong religious convictions, remarkable intelligence, and character. He attended first the Free Kirk School in Lossiemouth and then, the Drainie Parish School, where at 15 he was the leading pupil and at 16 became a pupil-teacher. Politics fascinated him, and he became an ardent Gladstonian.

In 1885 MacDonald went south to Bristol to a position in a Church-sponsored guild for young men. He associated with the Bristol branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a Marxist-oriented society. His employment soon proved unsatisfactory, and, after a brief return to Lossiemouth, he went to London in 1886. There he became an invoice clerk in a warehouse. More significant was his prompt membership in the London Trades Council and in the Fabian Society, whose intellectual and non-revolutionary approach to socialism he found more congenial than the SDF. Secretaryships with the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1888 and with the Fellowship of the New Life in 1892, as well as membership on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1894 to 1900, made him known and respected. In 1894 he joined the Independent Labour party (ILP), whose advocacy of both socialist doctrine and labor representation in Parliament attracted him. In 1895 he was an unsuccessful ILP candidate for Parliament. All these years he was educating himself by voracious reading.

In 1896 MacDonald married Margaret Gladstone, daughter of John Hall Gladstone, a prominent scientist and one of the founders of the YMCA. His marriage made him less skeptical and brought an income sufficient for independence. They lived in London and raised a family of six children. With his wife by his side, MacDonald, it has been said, readily acquired the manners, though not the prejudices, of the ruling class. Their home became a focal point for the labor and socialist world in London. The MacDonalds travels, so important for his later role as diplomat, included a trip around the world in 1906 and a trip to India in 1909. Margaret MacDonald died in 1911.


Labour Party

In the meantime, MacDonald's career developed quickly. He wrote for labor and socialist journals. He opposed the Boer War and resigned from the Fabian Society over the issue. When the Labour Representation Committee (LRC; later the Labour party) was organized in 1900, MacDonald was unanimously elected its first secretary. In 1903 he negotiated with the Liberals an agreement whereby in 35 parliamentary constituencies the Liberals would not oppose Labour. In 1906 the LRC was victorious in 29 constituencies, including Leicester, where MacDonald was elected. He at once became the party's most effective spokesman in the Commons. In 1911 he became chairman of the parliamentary Labour party.

When party differences over the war developed, MacDonald resigned his chairmanship. He condemned the British entry, but he was no pacifist and believed that the war must be won, with peace coming as soon as possible. He was one of the founders in 1914 of the Union of Democratic Control, which sought parliamentary control over foreign policy. Repudiation of secret diplomacy was also a main theme of the Labour party statement on war aims in December 1917, drafted largely by MacDonald.

Defeated in 1918, MacDonald returned to the Commons in 1922 and was elected chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. As such, he formed the first Labour government, in January 1924. His major achievement was the acceptance by France and Germany of the Dawes Plan for the payment of German reparations. His government recognized the Soviet Union but fell in October, when proposed trade agreements with the Soviet Union brought attacks. He drafted, in large part, "Labour and the Nation," the party manifesto in the election of 1929, which gave Labour a plurality in the Commons. In his second government (1929-1931) his main achievements were again in foreign policy; his talks with President Herbert Hoover were a successful preliminary to the Five Power Naval Conference in London, over which he presided with great skill. But the world economic situation steadily worsened, with mounting unemployment placing unprecedented demands on the Unemployment Insurance Fund and rendering precarious the finances of the country. Failure of his Cabinet to agree on measures brought MacDonald's resignation in August 1931.

Under pressure from the King and with the support of other party leaders, MacDonald formed a national government, an action soon repudiated by his party. The new government stabilized the financial situation and won an overwhelming mandate from the electorate in October, MacDonald remaining as prime minister until 1935, though with little Labour support. In general he accepted Conservative policies, notably a return to a general tariff in 1932, but failing health greatly reduced his effectiveness. After inaugurating rearmament in March 1935, he resigned and took the honorary post of lord president of the Council. Though defeated in 1935, he was returned to Parliament in 1936 by a by-election from the Scottish Universities. He died in November 1937, while on a holiday trip to South America.


Further Reading on James Ramsay MacDonald

There is no adequate biography of MacDonald. Lord Godfrey Elton, The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1939), is useful but incomplete. Other studies are L. MacNeill Weir, The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald (1938), a sympathetic account of MacDonald's political career, and Benjamin Sacks, J. Ramsay MacDonald in Thought and Action: An Architect for a Better World (1952). MacDonald's association with the early history of the Labour party is fully presented in Philip R. Poirier, The Advent of the British Labour Party (1958), and the high points of his career are treated in detail in Richard W. Lyman, The First Labour Government (1924), and in Reginald Bassett, Nineteen Thirty-one (1958).